A new international study of school working conditions depicts a global teaching force caught between idealism and frustration.
Educators around the world love teaching, but don’t believe their communities support and value them, according to theor TALIS, released by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on June 25. Teachers are highly educated and value continuing their training, but find professional development intermittent and unconnected to daily teaching problems and practices. They can identify instructional strategies that boost student learning, but feel they have little time or support to put them into practice. Educators from the United States to Singapore also value collaboration with their peers, but the vast majority feel isolated in their classrooms.
“We think this is a critical analysis of what’s really going on for teachers,” said Melinda G. George, president of the Washington-based the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, which collaborated with the OECD on the U.S. release of the TALIS data.
The OECD’s study analyzes the reported working conditions of more than 100,000 teachers in grades 7-9 from more than 6,500 schools in 34 member countries. The grades covered are considered “lower secondary,” a key transition period academically that is also the focus of international benchmarking tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment. Selected responses from school administrators are also included in the study.
The survey found that women still make up 68 percent of the teaching force in these grades, and that teachers are overwhelmingly college-educated and engaged in ongoing professional development at least once a year.
The OECD’s TALIS study found strong associations between teachers’ job satisfaction and their opportunities for collaboration with colleagues. The chart below is based on international averages.
SOURCE: OECD, TALIS 2013 Database
In countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea, 60 percent or more of teachers believe society values their profession, but in a majority of other countries, including the United States, a third or fewer teachers feel valued.
Still, on average, more than 90 percent of teachers say they are satisfied with their jobs overall, including 89 percent of U.S. teachers.
“It’s encouraging that despite the way society seems to be beating up on teachers, that they still have this high level of job satisfaction,” said Ronald D. Thorpe, the president and chief executive officer of the Arlington-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “They want to make a difference in children’s lives. Being in schools with difficult working conditions makes it harder to do that, but at base, these are people who care about children.”
U.S. Teachers Working More
Despite voicing relatively high levels of job satisfaction, U.S. teachers spend more hours per week working than their international counterparts, 45 hours versus 38 on average, according to the study. They also devote more hours per week solely to classroom teaching, 27 hours versus the 19-hour OECD average. That could mean they are getting insufficient time for planning, grading, or working with students or parents, the OECD says.
The study also found that U.S. teachers are far more likely than their international peers to say they work in schools where more than 30 percent of the students come from “socio-economically disadvantaged homes,” although that category was not explicitly defined in the survey.
The data on the U.S. teachers also come with the caveat that only 47 percent of the teachers in U.S. schools the OECD sampled responded, lower than the 50 percent minimum teacher-response rate for results to be included in the full report. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD director for education and skills, said that the researchers took steps to validate the accuracy of the data, but that the U.S. data were released in a country brief separate from the main report. “We still believe they provide a reasonable picture of the U.S. teaching force,” Mr. Schleicher said.
“In many regards, teaching and learning conditions for U.S. teachers and students are worse than in the average TALIS nation,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “They teach far more instructional hours ... and they have far less time for planning and collaborative learning, which means it’s harder for them to do things that will make them more effective.”
The issue of collaboration is a case in point. Extensive research supports the benefits of teachers collaborating on their lesson plans with other teachers, either to reinforce concepts across disciplines and grades or to identify and adopt better teaching practices. Similarly, teachers benefit from observing and providing feedback to other teachers. Globally, teachers who took part in co-teaching or observed and provided feedback to other teachers at least five to 10 times a year reported significantly higher job satisfaction in the TALIS survey than did teachers who did those activities twice a year or less.
“Those opportunities for collaboration are strongly related to teachers’ reports of self-efficacy,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said, adding that the highest-performing nations on international benchmarking tests like the Program for International Student Assessment tend to have high levels of collaborative teaching.
Yet TALIS finds more than half of teachers reported they rarely or never co-teach or observe their peers teaching. Moreover, nearly half never get feedback on how they can improve from their principal or other school administrators.
While nearly all U.S. teachers receive feedback from their principals or administrative staff, most say they’ve never taught with a colleague or observed other teachers and provided feedback. Forty-two percent of U.S. teachers say they’ve never engaged in joint projects across classrooms, the study says.
“It was amazing that teachers in the U.S. were significantly more likely to report never working with their colleagues,” said Dennis B. Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.
Mr. Thorpe said he wasn’t surprised. “There’s nothing about the structure of schools as they exist today that encourages collaboration. In general, schools are set up for teachers to be independent agents,” he said.
Mr. Thorpe and Mr. Van Roekel said schools need to discuss ways to integrate more professional development, planning, and team-teaching time throughout normal school days.
The OECD plans next to study the connections between the teacher data and separate surveys of parents and students of the same educators. “This kind of triangulation, looking at the same factors through the perception of students, teachers, parents, is going to be very insightful,” Mr. Schleicher said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Global Survey Spotlights Teacher Job Challenges